I‘ve never been fat oh no, quite the reverse. My age and waist-size are now identical, but it’s taken all my thirty-one years to get to that point. Having had the misfortune of skipping a year of elementary school, combined with congenital tendencies toward late-blooming, I found myself all through my childhood playing a grim kind of catch-up with my classmates in the all-too-crucial game of pituitary development. Certain moments remain crystalline in my memory: being fifty pounds in fifth grade; my closest friend John Petrillo weighed exactly double. In seventh grade, everyone in my class had to write their weights on a slip of paper so the teacher could calculate the mean. When he read mine, seventy-nine pounds (the seven crossed German-style), he said out loud, “Okay, who’s screwing around?” I raised my hand, said that that was my real weight and was called to the front to get on the scale. Consummate shame seventy-seven. I entered high school weighing ninety-three. Word got around, and one day I was pulled out of my advanced math class by the wrestling coach to be on the varsity team. Most schools have no one to compete at the ninety-eight-pound class and have to forfeit matches. Just my presence guaranteed victory; I would have lettered. But, still prepubescent, I was unwilling to shower with the team post-practice, and their creepy insistence compelled me to quit after three days.
It is clear, though, that however traumatic it is to be stalk-thin and muscleless in your average American high school, it’s better than being on the other end of the scale. Extreme skinniness you often grow out of, as in my case senior year of high school when I gained twenty-five pounds. But fat generally stays, and the overeating/low self-image/overeating cycle is well-documented. Nor does society respond similarly to the excessively light and the excessively heavy; if you are the former, and a man, you invoke both laughter and pity, if a woman, the assumption of anorexia, and often an even stronger desire to help. If you are fat, however, you are considered the last legitimate target of hatred and bigotry, and kids, like the parents who teach them, can be merciless.
Nor does the torture end at graduation. I think we could all guess, if we bothered to take a minute to do so, how difficult it must be to be obese and still bear the full complement of human desire. But few of us take the time; it’s easier just to think that it’s the fat person’s fault, as if the complexity of psychological dynamics, including self-hatred (which afflicts us all in different ways), was an easy thing to tease out. The excerpt below, from George Saunders’ deservedly famous short story “The 400-Pound CEO,” enters into the mind and heart of just such a man, and lets us feel the awesome weight of his disappointment. Sexual desire has, at times, been a profoundly difficult and painful part of most of our lives; what’s poignant in Saunder’s creation is how, even for the least attractive of men, the frailest crocus of hope breaks through the ice of universal scorn.
From “The 400-Pound CEO” by George Saunders
When I’ve finished invoicing I enjoy a pecan cluster. Two, actually. Claude comes in all dirty from the burial and sees me snacking and feels compelled to point out that even my sub-rolls have sub-rolls. He’s right but still it isn’t nice to say. Tim asks did Claude make that observation after having wild sex with me all night. That’s a comment I’m not fond of. But Tim’s the boss. His T-shirt says: I HOLD YOUR PURSE STRINGS IN MY HOT LITTLE HAND.
“Ha, ha, Tim,” says Claude. “I’m no homo. But if I was one, I’d die before doing it with Mr. Lard.”
“Ha, ha,” says Tim. “Good one. Isn’t that a good one, Jeffrey?”
“That’s a good one,” I say glumly.
What a bitter little office.
My colleagues leave hippo refrigerator magnets on my seat. They imply that I’m a despondent virgin, which I’m not. They might change their tune if they ever spoke with Ellen Burtomly regarding the beautiful night we spent at her brother Bob’s cottage. I was by no means slim then but could at least buy pants off the rack and walk from the den to the kitchen without panting. I remember her nude at the window and the lovely seed helicopters blowing in as she turned and showed me her ample front on purpose. That was my most romantic moment. Now for that kind of thing it’s the degradation of Larney’s Consenting Adult Viewing Center. Before it started getting to me, I’d bring bootloads of quarters and a special bottom cushion and watch hours and hours of Scandinavian women romping. It was shameful. Finally last Christmas I said enough is enough, I’d rather be sexless than evil. And since then I have been. Sexless and good, but very very tense. Since then I’ve tried to live above the fray. I’ve tried to minimize my physical aspects and be a selfless force for good. When mocked, which is nearly every day, I recall Christ covered with spittle. When filled with lust, I remember Ghandi purposely sleeping next to a sexy teen to test himself. After work I go home, watch a little TV, maybe say a rosary or two.
Thirty more years of this and I’m out of it without hurting anybody or embarrassing myself.
? George Saunders